Former leaders grilled over Norway’s poor emergency preparedness

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Another stream of top Norwegian officials were undergoing questioning in Parliament on Monday over what they did or did not do to improve Norway’s woeful lack of preparedness for national emergencies. First out was the prime minister who held power just before Jens Stoltenberg’s government took over in 2005.

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik now runs The Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights. He was among those being questioned in Parliament on Monday over why Norway was so poorly prepared for last year’s terrorist attack. PHOTO: oslocenter.no

Kjell Magne Bondevik of the Christian Democrats party, who served as prime minister from 2001 to 2005, claimed his administration realized just after the 9/11 attacks in the US that Norway’s own government headquarters needed to be better secured.

“I can’t and shall never say that everything was perfect, and that consciousness of preparedness was always high enough in our time,” Bondevik told the parliamentary committee investigating what went wrong during last year’s July 22 terrorist attacks in Norway. “But it was gradually increasing and high. It was therefore we set up a commission on vulnerablity (sårbarhetsutvalget) and it was therefore security projects were put in motion and followed up.”

Bondevik confirmed he received a report as early as 2004 calling for permanent closure of Grubbegata, one of two streets running through the government complex in downtown Oslo. Seven years later it remained open, allowing Norwegian right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik to drive right up to the buildings housing government ministries and set off his powerful bomb.

No immediate action was taken back in 2004 and Bondevik’s government lost power the year after. The government-appointed July 22 Commission that probed the emergency response to last year’s attacks blamed the failure to close the street on the government ministry in charge of administration, although others have testified about unclear lines of responsibility between that ministry and the Office of The Prime Minister. Bondevik was clear in his assessment.

“It was clear through letters and meetings that the professional department (administration ministry) was responsible for carrying out (a closure),” Bondevik said. He also said he thought it took an “unreasonably long time” for the street to actually be closed.

Both Bondevik and Odd Einar Dørum, who served as justice minister during Bondevik’s administration, testified that they also tried to get an emergency communications network put in place that would allow police, fire, ambulance and other emergency services to “talk together.” Dørum has written in his own auto-biography that he encountered delays from within his own government, when his fellow minister in charge of finance, Per-Kristian Foss of the Conservatives, was reluctant to fund it. Parliament eventually approved, in 2004, building up an emergency network (nødnett) in two phases but today it’s still not in place in many parts of the country.

“Getting major high-tech projects into place in Norway is no joke,” Dørum testified. He declined to comment in detail on Foss’ objections but conceded that politics is all about setting priorities, noting that his government eventually did make the network a priority over, for example, building a new prison at Halden. That prison opened during the next government.

The special hearings going on over five separate days this month are meant to find answers after months of officials blaming each other for what’s gone wrong with emergency preparedness. Also due to testify on Monday were the former heads of police intelligence unit PST and a string of military officials including Defense Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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